Intercultural couples experience both cultural losses and cultural gains in the process of cultural accommodation and blending new cultural family systems. I have observed that intercultural couples who successfully navigate these conflicts engage in ongoing cultural dialogues with each other to understand and negotiate cultural differences that emerge. Cultural dialogues among couples include three fundamental components, simplified as a process of cultural attunement: Tuning Out, Tuning In, and Turning Toward.
The technique of tuning out has two levels. On the micro level, this refers to intentional, attentional focus rather than divided attention or multitasking during cultural dialogues. The essential attribute of attentional focus is suppressing distractions. When I first began interviewing intercultural couples over a decade ago, these were identified as television, chores (“multitasking”), and children. In other words, couples were most successful in having these intentional conversations when they were alone and without distractors.
In 2018, the identifiable culprits include ubiquitous smart phones and other digital diversions that lead to divided attention. In addition to the increased cognitive distraction that is associated with these activities (experimental control studies demonstrate that the presence of a cell phone, even face down, is associated with brain drain), there is a profound message that is conveyed when a partner is engaged with digital distractions and unable to attend to conversation in the here and now. This divided attention signifies that what is “out there” is more important than the person “in here.”
Tip #1: Set aside time and space for a cultural dialogue with attentional focus.
On the macro level, mainstream examples of coupledom, parenthood, and “happily ever after” stories rarely reflect the diverse representations of multicultural families. In rare instances in which an intercultural family is portrayed in popular culture (such as commercials during the Super Bowl), there are the inevitable cruel comments posted by anonymous internet trolls that reinforce the “othering” of diverse family systems.
Unfortunately, this happens unintentionally as well when acquaintances (or friends, colleagues, or family members) make comments that invalidate or stereotype intercultural families. For example, mothers in intercultural relationships have noted, “people will say to me, ‘are they your kids?’ because they assume I am their nanny.” Or, their children are exoticized by comments such as, “you are so lucky to have biracial children because they have such beautiful skin and hair.”
In these examples, tuning out does not refer to ignoring or avoiding insults and acts of discrimination. These are separate conversations that need to occur outside of cultural dialogues structured for intercultural couples to navigate the cultural blending of rules, roles, boundaries, and traditions within the family. Adding in a critique of the many dominant discourses against cultural exogamy (intermarriage) distracts from the immediate dialogue and personal conflict, and this risks one or both partners assuming a defensive position about factors outside of the couple’s control.
Tip #2: Keep the focus of cultural dialogues on a single dimension of conflict.
Successful cultural dialogues include a process of tuning into the meaning and significance of cultural expectations and traditions.
Successful cultural dialogues include a process of tuning into the meaning and significance of cultural expectations and traditions. Many couples share that conflicts arise when there are different assumptions and norms between extended families that draw couples into competing allegiances. Some examples of these differences include definitions of family; assumptions about privacy; expectations about the frequency and duration of family time; and responsibilities and financial obligations to family.
Conflicts are amplified when couples focus on the content of disagreements rather than underlying meanings. Since each partner is embedded in a different cultural context in which values and rules are implicit, the meaning needs to become explicit to the other partner who does not share the same cultural background.
Julia expressed frustration when her husband’s parents flew in from Poland during the holiday season. Julia and Gerik had a newborn, and she perceived her in-laws as additional guests who were intrusive because they would “expect to be waited on” while they spent time with their new granddaughter. Julia viewed their behavior as controlling and dismissive, while Gerik couldn’t understand why she was so inflexible and irrational. When they focused on the underlying meaning of their conflict, rather than attributing it to personality traits, they learned that Julia felt undermined in her role as a new mother, and this in turn violated her value of being perceived as a self-reliant, independent, and competent woman. Gerik viewed the role of grandparents as essential in childrearing. He felt inadequate in his role as a Polish father raising a daughter in the United States, and that his parents were the connection to her Polish heritage that he feared was being lost.
Tuning into the meaning of the message enabled them to have a more effective cultural dialogue about a conflict that appeared to be intractable. They could then view the conflict from a cultural lens rather than personal attributions.
Tip #3: Inquire about the meaning of cultural traditions, rituals, and norms.
Finally, it is crucial for couples to turn toward each other to navigate how they will blend their cultures. The most effective cultural dialogues occur when couples focus on their own meaning and reality, rather then turning toward their families or their perceptions of family preferences.
Tip #4: Prioritize the perspective of each other, while appreciating the perspective of extended families.
In turning toward each other, intercultural couples acknowledge that compromise is asymmetrical. At some point, each partner will perceive that they are acquiescing more than the other, and each will perceive an unfair encroachment in the process of cultural blending in a new family system.
Tip #5: Avoid keeping score on who has compromised more–not all cultural accommodations are visible.
Intercultural couples are outliers in a world where most marry within their racial and ethnic groups. Intercultural couples marry despite social pressures and frequent family disapproval.
Although this may appear defensively individualistic and an endorsement of the American pop culture narrative of “us against the world,” this is consistent with the character of intercultural couples. Intercultural couples are outliers in a world where most marry within their racial and ethnic groups. Intercultural couples marry despite social pressures and frequent family disapproval. As border-crossing trailblazers, intercultural couples encompass an element of rebelliousness in their willingness to deviate from social pressures. In this regard, turning toward each other provides a strong inoculation against communities (and families) that convey disapproval, and a solid foundation to create a new family culture.
Hope these tips help you recognize and manage conversations in your own intercultural relationships.